Study of the Day: Why Fear Persists

New research from psychologists working at Ohio State University finds that the objects of our phobias appear much larger—and therefore scarier—than they actually are in real life.

main Tim_Booth shutterstock_70435279.jpg

PROBLEM: To get over phobias, we're often advised to face our fears. Unfortunately, exposure therapy doesn't always work.

METHODOLOGY: Ohio State University psychologists asked 57 arachnophobes to estimate the sizes of live tarantulas after five encounters. The participants began 12 feet from the glass tank that contained the arachnids and ended by guiding the insects around the tank with a short probe. They reported how afraid they were feeling throughout these tasks and, afterwards, completed a questionnaire on their panic symptoms and remaining fears.

RESULTS: The more distressed the subjects were during their encounters, the larger they thought the spiders had been. Similar positive associations were seen between overstated spider size and heightened anxiety, panic symptoms, and overall fear.

CONCLUSION: A phobia's distorting effect on the perception of a feared object allows fear to persist. As lead author Michael Vasey put it in a statement, "If one is afraid of spiders and ... tends to perceive spiders as bigger than they really are, that may feed the fear, foster that fear, and make it difficult to overcome."

SOURCE: The full study, "It Was as Big as My Head, I Swear! Biased Spider Size Estimation in Spider Phobia," is published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Image: Tim Booth/Shutterstock.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In